"Norma Desmond's here!"
"Norma Desmond!? I thought she was dead!"
There's a famous sequence in Billy Wilder's immortal classic Sunset Blvd (1950) in which Gloria Swanson, playing the fictional character of washed up movie star Norma Desmond, shows up at Paramount Studios to speak to her old director Cecil B. DeMille. We hear the quotes above from fictional gaffers, extras and assorted crew when the forgotten star waltzes onto the backlot. When the film was screened this past weekend at the incredibly elaborate, wonderfully surreal and absolutely exhausting TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles, the audience laughed uproariously at that series of lines.
An audience laughs hardest when they identify with a situation. Last Thursday night, Hollywood legends Margaret O'Brien, Ann Rutherford and Ann Jeffreys sat one table over from me at an opening night party thrown by Vanity Fair's professional party planners. When informed of Ms. Rutherford's presence I was aghast. Ann Rutherford? I thought she was dead!
The TCM Classic Film Festival has been deemed a complete success across the board. Watching Turner Classic Movies is an interesting exercise. Nothing on television is presented so tastefully, with such calculated artistic sense or with such absolute class. But beyond introductions by the universally adored Robert Osborne and the somewhat less adored Ben Mankiewicz, those involved with the channel remain invisible. It is as if this godsend in your cable line-up is beamed in from the moon. Nobody takes credit for the genius of its presentation. To steal a political speech-writing cliché: 'Make no mistake.' TCM is as hip as they come. So I wonder why I assumed those in charge of it would be humorless, elderly curmudgeons and pathetic social degenerates. The TCM Classic Film Festival taught me, to the contrary little Kliph, to the contrary.
The programming, art and even legal departments of TCM are run by the very hep; a collection of engaging non-conformists. I learned that both those in charge of the channel and those obsessed with watching it, do not bend to the whims of others, they know what they like and have no desire to fit in. It was a convention of individualists coming together to discover that they are, perhaps, not quite as alone in the world as day-to-day life makes them feel. The majority of the nearly two thousand delegates that attended the TCM Classic Film Festival came alone; an unparalleled statistic for an event of this scope. However, we bonded, acknowledging that even our closest friends cannot understand why we fawn over Ned Sparks' sneer. We knew that nobody back home could share our enthusiasm for late twenties footage of gyrating dancing girls moving in time to ejaculating marble fountains.1 Eating breakfast at the hotel restaurant, I overheard a man sucking back an omelette while talking about Marlon Brando's relationship with Wally Cox. I love the fact that suddenly there was a place in the universe where I could actually overhear someone mention Wally Cox. We all agreed, it was nice to not feel completely isolated from society... if only for four days.
Many attendees were decked out in their best retro outfits, and I too, sported an array of what I hope were tasteful looking suits for the duration. Before I left home, I realized that time would be tight between screenings and I would most certainly need a timepiece of some kind to help me out. Not wanting to spend a lot of money, but not wanting to wear a Casio brand watch with a fluorescent strap, I opted for a pocket watch. While sitting at breakfast in The Roosevelt, an attendee saw it and asked me, "Does that pocket watch have a story behind it?" "Yes," I said. "Many years ago... when my grandfather died... he didn't give me a pocket watch. So the day before yesterday I went to Sears and bought this one for twenty dollars."
There were cool nerds in spades milling from Orange to Highland along Hollywood Blvd, an area that is more often teeming with the squarest tourists in the world. The block is generally infested with large droves of imbecilic, walking human fanny packs. Oh, yes, there were still such tourists polluting the neighborhood while we took over, but, of course, they were not conscience enough to participate in anything quite as compelling as The TCM Classic Film Festival. We, the attendees of the TCM shindig, got thrills looking down and seeing Walk of Fame stars honoring Keye Luke and Stepin Fetchit, Warner Baxter and Fay Wray. But our adversaries, the Bermuda-short-wearing-families, only seemed to care about getting in the way and posing for photos with Walk of Fame oblongs that featured the names of Tom Cruise, Michael Bolton and Michael Jackson (upon whom these people were constantly placing candles). If God, as that braintrust Jerry Falwell once said, created AIDS to punish gay people, then God better get cracking to create an equally destructive disease for these people.2
Jean Paul Belmondo appeared in the evening. Jean. Paul. Belmondo. The coolest man in the world, now seventy-six years old, remains cooler than any of us could ever hope to be. The whole weekend he was flashing a brilliant smile that itself inexplicably oozed a sense of cool. Also beyond belief was how quickly I descended into a gawking fan boy. Once the gorgeous restoration of Breathless started up at Grauman's, I found my eyes affixed, staring without pause at Belmondo sitting directly across the aisle from me. He smiled every time his gorgeous young escort (and she might very well have been an escort) elbowed him when the young Belmondo did something amusing on screen. Still hep as hep can be, sporting a sharp white smoking jacket, he was interviewed prior to the film by TCM's Robert Osborne. Belmondo explained that he had been offered many gigs acting in Hollywood films but had turned all of them down. Hollywood directors, he said, had always offered him parts as an Italian, a Spaniard, an Arab - everything but a Frenchman. But, he said in his native tongue, he loves American films from the Golden Age, and was thrilled to fly in from France to participate in the week's festivities.
Also flying in from overseas, explaining that "I wouldn't miss it for the world" was one-hundred-year-old Oscar winner, Luise Rainer. Rainer won back-to-back Best Actress statuettes in 1936 and 1937 for The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth. She had the audience eating out of her dainty, delicate hand with stories of Louis B. Mayer, who would invite her to sit on his lap back in the thirties. One hundred years old, she was completely lucid and an incredibly generous raconteur, a highlight of the festival. However, she explained with great dread that just hours before, her hearing aid had broken and she could not hear a thing. "Of all the days!!! OF ALL THE DAYS!!!!" she shouted, to much audience laughter. Robert Osborne spoke into her ear and said, "Well, we won't ask too many questions, you can just tell us stories about old Hollywood." To which Rainer responded, "What? I can't hear you!" This Abbott and Costello style routine went on for several minutes until someone in the crowd suggested he write down his questions. Luckily, Luise has excellent eyesight. The wonderful tales ended on a bittersweet note. Osborne wrapped up the interview so that The Good Earth could be shown on time. But Rainer, holding court, blowing kisses to an adoring auditorium that cheered on its feet asked, "Does anyone have any questions for me?" Osborne, conscience of tight scheduling, told her regretfully, "We don't have time for questions unfortunately, because there are several more movies to be shown here tonight." To which Luise Rainer responded, "What? I can't hear you!"
I received a text message Saturday afternoon from a couple of delegates I had befriended the day before. "Dinner at Musso n Franks? R U in?" I had been looking for an excuse to visit the legendary Hollywood restaurant, one of the original old Hollywood remnants that had once been as popular as long defunct celebrity joints like The Brown Derby, Ciro's and Romanoff's. Musso and Frank's is perhaps the single best bar to sit at for an old Hollywood fan or for fans of cantankerous old men dressed in dapper red jackets. Luckily I am a big fan of both. Entering the restaurant that Orson Welles ate and drank himself into gluttonous oblivion at is such a rich experience, mere words cannot describe it properly. It wasn't until much later (and much drunker) that I was told that this was also one of Charles Bukowski's favorite bars. Was it any wonder that upon entry the first person I spotted was TCM Festival invitee, Tony Curtis? As I curled up on a red leather stool at Musso and Frank's, a red jacketed bartender who, himself, was extremely old, looked over at Tony Curtis and said to me, "He looks like he's a hundred." I ordered a scotch, straight, one ice cube. That's the way Dean Martin had 'em, hence, that's the way I have 'em. "What kind?" asked the robust, white-haired bartender. "Whaddaya got?" The bartender picked up a mysterious looking scotch bottle and slammed it hard on the bar in front of me. "I wouldn't drink this stuff," he concluded. "Why not?" I wondered why he was even suggesting it. "SMELL IT," he demanded, popping off the cork and quite literally shoving it at my nose. Initially it smelled normal. About ten seconds later my nostrils thought they detected a house burning down somewhere nearby. He poured it for me, I drank it, and I was suddenly very sorry the stool wasn't equipped with a seat belt. "This bottle been here maybe many years," he explained in broken English. There was enough left in the bottle for one more glass and he poured it for me without my asking. "Time to finish off the bottle. On the house." Musso and Frank's: perhaps the single greatest place on earth to get drunk.
I stumbled out of the bar and crossed the street to what was one of the most highly anticipated events for people in the know. A real treat, Warner Bros allowed TCM to screen the Censored Eleven,3 the title given to a group of notorious Looney Tunes cartoons from the 1930s and 40s. The collection has been out of circulation for as long as any of us can remember due to some defamatory depictions of African-Americans. In reality, beyond the expected chicken and watermelon references and typical blackface type drawings, the cartoons are nowhere near as offensive as one might think. Knowing that the last sanctioned public showing of these cartoons happened in 1968, I think most in attendance expected far worse. The screening was a momentous event, not just for the rarities on display, but also for the opportunity to see any 1940s cartoons in 35mm on the big screen, a disturbingly uncommon event. The prints looked lovely - gorgeously vibrant racism for all to enjoy. I was drunk and alone when a woman entered my aisle and was preparing to sit a few seats away. Suddenly she noticed something that stopped her cold. "Good Lord, looks like someone splooged on this seat!" Looking over I concurred it was a suspect splosh and she moved to the chair next to mine and asked if it was okay if she shared my space. "By all means," I said adding, "Be forewarned, by the time I finish watching these cartoons, it's a safe bet that these seats are going to be covered in my splooge." She then apologized in advance for the likely chance she would be laughing loud and hard at the highly specious jokes in the cartoons to come. Clearly this was a woman after my own heart. Needless to say we spent a large chunk of the next day together. The cartoons were introduced by respected historian Donald Bogle, a man who has done more to honor overlooked Black actors of the vintage Hollywood era than anyone else. While he was lecturing, my insta-date elbowed me to point out a detail on the back of the seat in front of us. Like many the bijou, The Egyptian Theater has nameplates on the back of its chairs that feature the names of people that once donated money to the venue. The seat in front of us featured a bronze nameplate that said... AL JOLSON. Staring at the name of the king of blackface in this circumstance was such a bizarre coincidence. "I've got to take a picture of that!" she said. While we listened to Bogle's explanation of what we were about to watch, her camera flashed only to have animation historian and Truman Capote sound-alike Greg Ford, who was sitting in front of us, turn around and shout with contempt, "You must be kidding." That's one person whose commentaries I won't bother to listen to on the Looney Tunes DVDs anymore. I'm not kidding.4
I saved a great deal of money by not staying at the sanctioned festival headquarters, the pricey Hollywood Roosevelt, instead opting to stay with a friend at a former Warner Bros writers' quarters in Burbank. Directly across from a Warner studio concourse nicknamed The Ranch (for the many famous Western movies filmed there) was my narrow one level building consisting of six units. When writers were brought in from New York to temporarily work on a script, this is where the studio put them up. Rich on history, for whatever reason it is no longer in WB's fold, and instead rented out to apartment dwellers. Writers have never been treated particularly well in Hollywood and the old, rather basic, semi-deco quarters reflect how little credence Warner Bros accorded them. Maybe the ghost of Jack Warner could sense that after all these years another writer was sleeping in the building, as during my stay the sewage main exploded. The front steps were showered with an awful smelling haze, creating the opposite effect of classic Hollywood glamour. Luckily the festival consumed almost 19 hours each day, keeping me far away from life on The Ranch.
Just a couple blocks from the writers' quarters was a restaurant called Smoke House. I didn't eat there, but I did spend one late night photographing its grounds with the same meticulous care as an Al Qaeda scout. Smoke House has beautiful neon signs and a classic looking steak house motif that I was immediately drawn to. I discovered some fascinating Smoke House history later on and can't help but assume I was drawn to it because of a strong spiritual pull. Right next door, once upon a time, was the home of UPA - the cartoon studio responsible for the Cartoon Modern look in Gerald McBoing Boing, Mr. Magoo and many other wonderful cartoons. In fact the whole neighborhood was once home to classic animation studios. Mark Evanier explains, "For a while, the official Jim Backus filling station seems to have been a restaurant called Smoke House that's still in business over in Burbank, right across from Warner Brothers. Someone should write an article about the role this place has played in the history of comic books and animation. UPA was right next door and many other animation studios were close enough that it became a major lunch spot and watering hole for cartoonists. In fact, the editors from Western Publishing (Dell Comics, Gold Key) would frequently lunch there because some of the artists drawing their comics were working days at the studios and editorial business could be transacted there - scripts or checks handed out, artwork turned in etc - over a meal. Also of course, everyone liked the food there... especially the garlic bread, which is still quite wonderful ... Hanna-Barbera was not far away and when I was working there, I'd lunch at least once a week at the Smoke House. I always ran into other folks in the cartoon business there - often Bill Hanna or Walter Lantz - and sometimes saw Jim Backus. He wasn't doing Magoos at the time but he'd be at the bar, tossing back a cocktail and joking with everyone. You'd hear the distinctive laugh of the Nearsighted One cackling through the restaurant." You might remember in my first report I mentioned Jim Backus and his film Mooch Goes to Hollywood (1971). Well, Kliph went to Hollywood. And was apparently guided by the spirit of Jim Backus.
I had lunch at Canter's Delicatessen, another legendary venue often frequented by locals, nerds like myself, and even the tourists whom I so terribly and unfairly wished a life-threatening disease upon earlier. I was struck by the enormous menu they hand you at Canter's, so full of words that it resembles one of those Magic Eye novelties. I found it remarkable that nightclub star, television producer, father of Marlo and star of Make Room For Daddy, Danny Thomas, has not just one but two sandwiches named after him at Canter's, while other notable comedians are left out in the cold salami. Add to that - Danny Thomas wasn't even Jewish, but Roman Catholic and notable as showbiz's very first major Lebanese-American star (followed later by Lebanese-American notables like Casey Kasem and Ralph Nader). It seemed an appropriate place to meet my friend who was recently laid off. I thought I should treat him to a meal in such a desolate state, although it looks like his old boss might be hiring him back. His red haired chief told him however, he won't necessarily be going back to the NBC building where he used to work, but instead to an office run by TBS. Ah, yes, could you only have seen we two lowly Jewish comedy writers sitting there in Canter's - corned beef and pickles were flying everywhere.
Food was front and center for me during the week. There was Clifton's Cafeteria, a three-story monolith built in 1931 that counts Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen as regulars. There was the Bob's Big Boy in Burbank where I overheard a heated argument between an employee and a customer about H.R. Pufnstuf. I was downright falling in love with a city I had nothing but hostility for back in the long forgotten days of my stand-up career. Returning to Hollywood amidst my unexpected resurgence as a young, showbiz historian, I have died and gone to heaven. Kitty corner to the oldest surviving Bob's Big Boy in America was Papoos Hot Dog Show, a fast food joint that has some pretty impressive looking signage, including a neon weiner dog. If you're particularly observant, you'll note that it was featured in Don Siegel's Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1956). I also enjoyed a catered lunch in the Roosevelt ballroom (where the very first Academy Award ceremony was held) while Joan Crawford's grandson screened his grandma's long-lost home movies. The thirty minutes of Super 8 footage had no sound but was full of intriguing moments. The raw film was never intended for public consumption, so we were treated to her make-up-less puss, revealing that without the studio touch-up, Joan's face was covered in vibrant freckles. There was even one crowd-pleasing scene that showed Mommie Dearest sunbathing in the nude.
Well, you're surely saying, Kliph, were there not any low points? And did you even bother to watch any movies? Yes and yes. Sunnyside Up (1929), King Kong (1933), Top Hat (1935), Bride of Frankenstein (1936), Saboteur (1942), Sunset Blvd (1950), 1957's The Sweet Smell of Success and 1959's North By Northwest (both written by the legendary Ernest Lehman) were just some of the brilliant films I squeezed in, most introduced by their surviving stars. As for the low points there were very few, but there were two mishaps in particular that regretfully occurred and could have been alleviated.
First was a weak link among many talented moderators. Highly competent people conducted interviews and lectured prior to screenings including Robert Osborne, Ben Mankiewicz, and a wonderful speaker from Vanity Fair - Cari Beauchamp. It is indeed a skill to know exactly how long to speak, conveying enough information without speaking so long as to take away from the event itself and alienating your audience in the process. We're there to see the films after all, and not to be bogged down with pontification... or for that matter - bumbling ineptitude. Someone needs to explain this to a man who is an excellent writer, but hands-down the world's most awful moderator and a shockingly awkward interviewer: Sam Kashner. Kashner was granted the stage to moderate sessions with Mel Brooks, Tony Curtis and Buck Henry respectively. The Mel Brooks session went fine because, as an attendee astutely put it "All you have to do is put a nickel in Mel Brooks and watch him go." Tony Curtis would have benefited from guidance courtesy a moderator that could reel him back onto topic and Buck Henry's interview was a missed opportunity, thanks to Kashner's inability to ask open ended questions. So frustrating was that session in fact, that Buck Henry himself chose to end it. Kashner seemed to forget to put question marks at the end of his many queries. "There was another version of The Graduate script before your own," he said to Buck. Henry responded after a prolonged silence in which he, like us, was waiting for an actual question that never came. Buck finally responded, "Yes. Correct." Henry would have been better served had the event been arranged as a Q&A with his fans. Finally Buck, who had been as polite, gracious, and tolerant as possible, became visibly agitated waiting for Kashner's skills to improve.5 When they did not, Henry finally announced, "Okay. I think we're done." Note to TCM: There is a skilled conversationalist out there who not only has interviewed Mel Brooks, Tony Curtis, Buck Henry and countless other legends several times before, he is a living legend in his own right. And you even teamed up to show several episodes of his TV show in which he interviewed Hollywood legends on your channel. His name is Dick Cavett - and he should be doing this job next year. You may take this suggestion free of charge. I am sure Mr. Cavett would love to do it.
Tony Curtis is not well. I am unsure of who his professional handlers are or who his management is, but whoever they are they should be fired immediately. Five minutes into a half-hour interview with the legendary star prior to The Sweet Smell of Success, it became tragically apparent to anyone in the audience, especially those that have a family member suffering from Alzheimer's, that Curtis is in that unfortunate state. There are many different phases to the devastating condition and, thankfully, Curtis is not yet experiencing the most advanced effects, but he is about half way there. The theater was packed. Some thought he was trying to be funny, but failing. Others thought he was just forgetful because he's old in general. However, to someone like myself who has been dealing with an identical situation as close to home as one can get, all the brain patterns and symptoms were all too familiar. Of course Tony Curtis cannot be blamed for what were thirty minutes of rambling nonsense, a series of disconnected statements, and a barrage of answers that trailed off into the ether. But his management can be held responsible for putting a beloved icon into such a vulnerable position, to fend for himself in front of nearly one thousand adoring fans. A simple "Mr. Curtis is not feeling one hundred percent and will not be able to speak for very long due to health issues" would have sufficed. Nobody would have been upset and Curtis would have come off looking fine. Instead, whoever represents him is either unaware (this seems unlikely as everyone in attendance could notice something was wrong) or completely incompetent. Unfortunately for Alzheimer's victims, they are not exactly capable of making fully formed business decisions on their own. Tony can't fire his management. Somebody else needs to. But this is probably, contractually, impossible. Alzheimer's drugs now exist, and although they don't cure the patient, they can stop the process from getting worse. I hope for Tony's sake, someone close to him is taking care of this. This was easily the most upsetting part of the festival. Such a disservice to a great film star was not the fault of TCM and it was not the fault of Tony Curtis. But it was the fault of those in charge of his personal appearances.
There were rumors throughout the weekend that this would likely be a one time only event. Attendees speculated a variety of reasons. Some thought the festival was suffering from a lack of profit, that an excess of work was required to put it on, and that too many press representatives from radio station websites were suggesting that Hollywood tourists be struck down with life threatening diseases. At the last possible moment, after the final film was screened, an announcement was made. There will be another one next year. I hope very much to attend and hope you can too. Dear TCM, consider this my official request for WFMU press accreditation for the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival. I had the time of my life.
Notes1This is a description of an actual sequence in the earliest full talkie musical Sunnyside Up (1929), screened twice at the festival to a legion of shocked, amazed and enthralled moviegoers. It indeed featured gyrating dancing girls, accompanied by growing palm trees that acted as metaphors for throbbing erections, literally and figuratively climaxing with a series of fountains unsubtly ejaculating.
2Okay perhaps way over the line. Let the bermuda-short-wearing-photo-with-Bolton's-star crowd live and, instead, may the new disease affect the dregs that dress up (poorly) like characters from popular culture, taking up precious sidewalk space on Hollywood Blvd as they yell at tourists to have their photos taken with them. How is there not a Los Angeles bylaw in place outlawing this practice?
3Warner Bros actually denied TCM three prints, turning the screening into the Censored Eight. There was no specific explanation why they were not offered, but the implication was they still consider them too offensive for public consumption. This is odd, as its hard to imagine any of those three being more racist than one of the cartoons shown that evening, Uncle Tom's Bungalow, a short that revolves around a "used slave" salesman.
4I should reiterate that the photo was taken during the talk, with houselights up, not during the cartoons. Full Disclosure: I almost always skip over his commentaries on the Looney Tunes DVDs anyway - the information is worthwhile but his voice drives me up the wall.
5The Jekyll and Hyde disparity between Kashner's incredible ability with a pen and incredible inability with a microphone reminds me of what Betty White said about Rod Serling's trying to ad-lib. In that regard, Kashner can be comforted to know that his struggle to communicate on stage finds him in good literary company. Although, that's no comfort for those of us that have to sit through it.
Archive of Kliph Nesteroff articles
Contact Kliph: email@example.com